A recent consultative workshop by ICRISAT and DST brought together stakeholders from diverse backgrounds to brainstorm a feasible action pathway to scale Regenerative Agriculture (RA) practices. Integrating viewpoints held by knowledge institutions and practice communities might be RA’s biggest challenge, and opportunity, in reimagining sustainable food systems in India.
"For the first time, I am thinking of what a plant breeder like me can contribute to the initiatives directed towards Regenerative Agriculture”.
This comment by a senior ICRISAT scientist caught my attention. I was at a three-day workshop hosted by ICRISAT in collaboration with the Department of Science and Technology (DST). Titled "Harnessing the Potential of Natural Farming (Regenerative Agriculture) as a Low-Emission Development Pathway for Improved Resilience, Soil Health, Livelihoods and Nutrition in India”, the workshop brought together diverse representatives from academic institutions, private sector organizations and civil society actors to discuss several aspects of regenerative agriculture. The event was significant, with mainstream research institutions opening their metaphorical (and literal) doors to more comprehensive consultations and field experiences of non-scientists. The outcome of the intense discussions was reflected in the statement by the senior scientist, who found the space to ask how plant breeders could go beyond yield targets to breed varieties suitable for RA practices. Personally, this felt like a welcome shift in mindsets.
Embracing the systemic nature of food security and sustainability
The emphasis on sharing diverse ideas rather than rigid ideologies allowed the participants to point out crucial gaps in the implementation of RA. While there was an agreement on the critical need to move beyond an input-heavy, yield-based food production system, speakers pointed out that there was no consensus on the measures and terminologies that would enable an average farmer to transition from conventional to sustainable agriculture. For instance, the question of reliable bio-inputs for farmers led to a discussion on how decentralized bio-input resource centres (BRCs) could be designed in collaboration with Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) and operated through Self-Help Groups (SHGs). Such local and innovative solutions can address multiple concerns of input quality, accessibility, and livelihood. Real-time monitoring of evaluation criteria for RA and generating reliable data would require investing in institutional collaborations and innovations. These shifts are not simply technological in nature and would require a systemic rethinking of economic and social priorities. To illustrate, the idea of carbon credits came across as a potential solution to incentivize farmers to maintain soil fertility through RA practices. Renowned scientist Prof Rattan Lal argued that carbon should be seen as the most important crop that a farmer can harvest from the atmosphere through RA, and needs to be paid for it.
Evidence counts. But what counts as evidence?
The lack of reliable data regarding the effects of RA practices across different agro-climatic zones in India was cited as a persistent pain point in furthering the agenda of RA implementation. However, a few participants also argued that the parameters being used to compare RA and conventional agricultural practices are too narrow, and newer metrics need to be developed to measure the impact on biodiversity, nutrition, health and cost reduction. A farmer practising RA in Maharashtra quipped that we need a farmer's happiness index to understand the full extent of any intervention. As the importance of collecting data, and experimenting on farmer field sites was emphasized, the idea of agricultural universities allowing farmers to conduct field trials on campus was also discussed. In an effort to walk the talk, a scientist at ICRISAT offered a piece of land on the campus to try out the techniques suggested by one of the farmer participants. Such institutional innovations could redefine the role of scientists and create level playing fields through co-creating knowledge instead of assuming farmers to be passive ‘beneficiaries’. The recently established Indo-German Global Centre for Agroecology Research and Learning by the Govt of Andhra Pradesh can offer more collaboration opportunities for farmers and institutions alike.
Implementing RA practices thus also requires an investment in the design of appropriate technology to support the production and post-harvest processes in multi-cropping, low-tillage systems. While some innovative designs to automate the process of making microbial solutions (like Amrut Jal), and harvest crops such as millets exist, a range of such products need to be made accessible to the farmers. Recognizing the high percentage of female labour on farms, the technologies being developed should also be gender sensitive.
The task of listening better: Ground-up policies
The workshop resulted in several suggestions being tabled for policy recommendations, and it was heartening to see all voices being given due recognition. More importantly, the platform allowed for the possibility of building 'learning alliances’, such that stakeholders with divergent views could also find some common ground to think together. For instance, both sceptics and those practising or supporting RA agreed on the following points to further RA research and implementation –
a) Need for dedicated funding to support research and extension services, preferably on farmers’ fields
b) Recognizing RA as a philosophy and approach rather than limiting it to the implementation of specific practices, thus allowing for context-specific innovations to develop.
c) Working with private sector players and civil society organizations to develop decentralized models of agri-food production and distribution.
d) Recognizing the role of gender empowerment and land-lease policies in creating a supportive ecosystem for RA practices.
e) Collaborating with educational institutes to involve youth in various aspects of sustainable food systems.
Overall, it is clear that empowering farmers to adopt Regenerative Agriculture is as much a cultural shift at a community level as it is a technological shift at the field level. One can only hope that the progressive ideas and optimism shared on such platforms translates into political will and collective action on the ground.
Deborah Dutta is a Senior Research Fellow in the Living Farm Incomes project, IRMA.
C Shambu Prasad is a Professor of Strategic Management and Social Sciences at IRMA.